Ask Dr. Job’s chief contributor, Sandra Pesmen, is a member of the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame and author of “DR. JOB’s Complete Career Guide.”

Winner of several journalism awards, Pesmen is a graduate of the University of Illinois Media College at Urbana, and is listed in several Who’s Who editions. She also has been Corporate Features Editor of Crain Communications Inc., founding Features Editor of Crain’s Chicago Business and a reporter/features writer for The Chicago Daily News.

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Stop Scaring Employees

Of course you know that fear and control are not going to motivate your employees, so most leaders make a conscious effort to lead and motivate employees by example, explanation, kindness and encouragement.
But even the best of them will lose their temper, forget their controls, and scare the heck out of their staffs.
That isn't the way to improve service and increase business.
 "From time to time we all say or do things that spark unconscious fears in our employees," says Christine Comaford, author of the new book SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together.  "The primitive 'fight, flight, or freeze' part of the brain takes control. When that happens, when people are stuck in what I call the Critter State, all they can focus on is their own survival."
          In other words, everything that makes them good employees-their ability to innovate, to collaborate, to logically think through problems-goes out the window. All decision-making is distilled down to one question: What course of action will keep me safest?
          Obviously, we need our employees to be in control of their whole brain-especially the parts responsible for the emotional engagement and intelligent decision-making that lead to high performance. Today's economy demands it. That's why Comaford's business-teaching leaders how to use the best tactics from neuroscience to get teams unstuck and shift them into their so-called "Smart State"-is booming.
          "I regularly see clients who master these techniques and quickly see their revenues and profits increase by up to 200 percent annually," she notes. "It just goes to show how pervasive fear in the workplace actually is-and how crippling it can be."
          So how might we be inadvertently holding back our teams and crippling our own cultures? What, exactly, are we doing to send our people into their Critter States? More to the point, what are you doing? Comaford describes a few (very subtle) offenders:
You "help them out" by giving them solutions. Or, in Comaford's words, you advocate when you should be inquiring. When we consistently tell people what to do instead of encouraging them to figure things out on their own, we develop a company full of order-takers instead of innovators. By training them to always ask, we create a workforce of employees who are perpetually "frozen" in their Critter State.
On the other hand, when we engage them in solving problems themselves, we create a sense of safety, belonging, and mattering-which Comaford says are the three things humans crave most (after basic needs like food and shelter are met). And of course, we help them develop a sense of ownership that will serve them-and the company-well.
Your meetings are heavy on sharing and point proving, light on promises and requests. Why might a meeting scare your employees? Because confusion and uncertainty create fear, says Comaford. Meetings that are rambling and unfocused send people into the fight-flight-freeze of the Critter State. On the other hand, short, sweet, high-energy meetings that have a clear agenda keep everyone in their Smart State.
The key is to understand the five types of communication:
- Information-sharing
- sharing of oneself
- debating, decision-making, or point-proving
- requests
- promises
You give feedback to employees without first establishing rapport. Imagine for a moment that your employees are antelopes. Because you have authority over them, they quite naturally view you as a lion. It's not that you're purposely ruling with teeth and claws. It's simply their critter brains at work, peering out and "coding" who is a friend and who is a foe. That means unless you can get employees to see you as "just another antelope," you won't be able to influence them-they'll be too busy ensuring their own survival to accept your feedback.
Comaford has a wealth of neuroscience tactics for helping leaders get inside their employees' heads and truly establish rapport. Most of them are too complex to convey in a short article (Meta Programs are one of the most potent), so here she offers three "shortcut" phrases that help people feel safe enough to shift out of their Critter State:
1. "What if..." When you use this preface to an idea/suggestion, you remove ego and reduce emotion. You're curious-not forcing a position, but kind of scratching your head and pondering. This enables someone to brainstorm more easily with you.
2. "I need your help." We call this a dom-sub swap, because when the dominant person uses it, they are enrolling the subordinate person and asking them to rise up and swap roles. This is an especially effective phrase when you want a person to change their behavior or take on more responsibility.
3. "Would it be helpful if..." When someone is stuck in their Critter State and spinning or unable to move forward, offering up a solution will help them see a possible course of action or positive outcome.
You focus on problems rather than outcomes. First, a little background: Comaford teaches her clients there are three default roles that people lean toward-Victim, Rescuer, or Persecutor. (These were first created by Dr. Stephen B. Karpman, and his article detailing these roles won the Eric Berne Memorial Scientific Award in 1972.) 1 These roles are interdependent (there must be a Persecutor for there to be a Victim for the Rescuer to save) and they play out every day in the workplace.
 "All leaders want to outperform, outsell, and out-innovate the competition," reflects Christine Comaford. "And most of us have teams that are quite capable of doing so. We just need to stop scaring the competence out of them."
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